How to forget about, um, memory loss
LET'S SEE. I know there was something important I was going to write about today. It's on the tip of my tongue. Or maybe the tip of my medulla oblongata. Brain-related. That's it. I was going to discuss the fact that new medical research suggests that a brain virus might be the cause of forgetfulness.
This is great news because it explains so many things. Like why I couldn't remember what I was going to write about. And ... and some other thing that escapes me at the moment. The beauty of learning that a brain virus may be responsible for making you forget stuff is that it not only takes away the guilt you feel for "getting dumber with old age," but it feeds into one's sense of hypochondria.
I've always been a hypochondriac, a semi-professional recreational hypochondriac. Could have gone pro. There was a time when I could seriously imagine any large freckle on my arm as the first sign of a flesh-eating bacteria infestation that would consume my entire body within a week.
I could turn a simple cough into an early symptom of black lung disease. It didn't matter that I had never been in a coal mine. That's the beauty of hypochondria: Facts don't enter the picture.
BUT BEING a hypochondriac is a young man's game. It takes a lot of energy and imagination. I can hardly transform a sore toe into "toe-nail cancer" anymore. Maybe the whatayacallit, the, uh, forgetfulness virus actually is diminishing my hypochondria. But doesn't imagining you have a virus that makes you forget things, per se, mean your hypochondrial lobe is working? It's very complicated.
At team of researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota thinks the memory-loss virus could be the same kind that causes colds and diarrhea. Really? I didn't even know that a brain virus caused either the common cold or diarrhea. I thought you got a cold from being coughed upon by diseased friends and that the cold then led to the, well, you know. Why didn't those guys at the Mayo Clinic tell us about this before?
Where was I? Rhymes with drain. Hmmm. Grain? Main? Pain? Oh, yeah, brain. Brain virus. Forgetfulness.
"Our study suggests that virus-induced memory loss could accumulate over a lifetime of an individual and eventually lead to clinical cognitive memory deficits," Dr. Charles Howe said in a wire report. His findings are laid out in the journal "Neurobiology of Disease," a fascinating periodical that should have a home on every budding hypochondriac's bookshelf.
According to Howe, these kinds of viruses, called picornaviruses, infect 1 billion people around the world each year. One billion! They could have a big picornavirus convention, but nobody could remember when it was.
Of course, scientists learned of the virus by testing, um, what are those cute little furry things with the wet noses and long tails? No, not Democrats. Mice. They tested mice. They infected mice with a mouse version of the forgetfulness virus and the mice forgot things. Like they didn't know what cheese was anymore.
They put the mice in a maze and the mice forgot how they got there. ("Hey, I was eating a big chunk of that yellow stuff and all of a sudden I'm here. Where's here? What the ...?") They put mice through all kind of memory tests, like teaching them the Gettysburg Address and then they'd forget it. Mice were asked to tell the difference between a cat and an aardvark but couldn't remember.
I don't know if those were the actual tests. I forgot what the actual tests were. But they were the usual lab-mice tests, I suspect.
The idea that a virus causes forgetfulness actually is kind of encouraging. Most people my age have simply assumed that growing forgetful was a natural part of getting older. I've got dry-marker boards all over the house on which I leave myself little notes: Empty the dryer, comb hair ... look up picture of aardvark and cat.
If there's a virus that makes us forget, maybe the Mayo Clinic folks will come up with an anti-virus to counteract it. Imagine not having to become that doddering old geezer with his glasses on his head wandering around the house looking for his glasses. Imagine being able to go shopping without having to check in with your spouse by cell phone to be directed like an astronaut on a space walk around the supermarket aisles. Imagine, well, I've forgotten the third thing.
The main thing is that if you find yourself becoming forgetful, don't worry about it. It could just be a brain virus. Relax. Sit down and have some of that yellow stuff in the refrigerator on a cracker.
, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' 2004 First Place Award winner for humor writing, appears Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org